I’m tough on animated movies because as a fan of the art form, I expect quality all around. I frequently bemoan the current state of animated films, but I’m happy to report that the Kung Fu Panda franchise is still just as dependable and smart as ever. Our cuddly black and white hero Po (Jack Black) is back, and this time he must train his fellow pandas in the art of kung fu in order to save the entire kingdom from ruin.
Excellent voice talent (from Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, J.K. Simmons, Angelina Jolie and David Cross) paired with gorgeous animation (that far exceeds the look of the first two films) makes for a movie worth watching. This is not simply a throw away movie for the kiddos. The filmmakers have created a satisfying balance of truly touching, grown-up moments that are quickly interspersed with some kid-friendly humor to ensure things never get too heavy.
All this comedy and action is finished off with a dash of wisdom sprinkled on top, with the timeless message of the joy in just being yourself. While there are plenty of silly animal jokes and sight gags, the film has quite a few intense and disturbing scenes where beloved characters are in peril, so I think it’s more appropriate for slightly older kids.
Let’s face it: most movies made for kids are junk. Almost no effort goes into the craft of storytelling; it’s like the filmmakers don’t care whether their movie is engaging or whether its characters are three-dimensional. I can just picture the internal meetings, where tough questions about plot, pacing, and structure are met with a collective shrug and the stock response: “who cares, the kids are going to see it anyway.”
This is where the “Kung Fu Panda” movies stand apart from the pack. The characters are memorable, their relationships fully-fledged, and the storylines worthwhile. There are realistic relationships and the stories have an arc where Po, his friends and even his teacher actually grow and continue to learn.
“Kung Fu Panda 3” isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch – the first half of the movie drags, the furious five (who were a significant part of the first and second movies) have little to do, and it’s a little too heavy on the fat jokes (fat people be eatin’, amirite?) – but as a whole it works well. The film picks up significant steam in the latter half, where Po and company face a new adversary and in the process are taught valuable lessons about the value of appreciating who you are and how all of us can and should continue to grow through learning, all of the time.
Unlike so many other movies made in this segment, “Kung Fu Panda 3” isn’t mindlessly stupid trash.